“It’s good what you’re doing, demanding for a space. That way when the door opens for you, we can come in too.”
This was the import of the conversation I had with Yankunytjatjara poet Ali Cobby Eckermann as I accompanied her and three other Indigenous poets and writers to the venue for Literary Commons, a festival where Indian and Indigenous Australian writers came together and spoke of commonalities and contrasts in their work in April this year. I was talking to Ali about a presentation I was preparing and she supported the claims and demands I was about to make that afternoon. But what struck me was the notion that Indigenous Australian poets too have to make demands for visibility in the literary sector. The thought made me guilty.
As someone who has never been made to feel like a second-class citizen in their own country, I know I speak for many migrants who come to Australia for better opportunities, that we have benefited from the decimation of Indigenous Australians who never seceded sovereignty of their lands and have been systematically reduced from 100% to a current 3% of the entire population of Australia. Doesn’t the migrant population that figures somewhere around 27% (first generation) then pose a challenge to Indigenous Australians vying for literary recognition?
I find it really hard to talk about multiculturalism and diversity, demanding recognition and acceptance when the state of affairs of Indigenous Australian writers and poets is quite abject. Ali’s comment stayed with me for a long time. I mean, I already felt a fool here, in an ecosystem that was not mine, working to enter an industry that didn’t see me and pretending to be a ‘writer’ made me feel pretentious too. Here I was, pushing for recognition (and promotion, I daresay) of my cultural identity in a literary/social/political/commercial landscape in a country that has trouble valuing its own. What was I even trying?
But try I must. Like Ali said, it might open doors for many others.
I arrived in Australia four years ago as an international student from India, to pursue a master’s degree in creative writing, which I completed 2.5 years ago. Since then I’ve been working as a freelance writer, editor and a sessional academic while continually seeking full-time opportunities.
Most people from my country arrive in Australia to migrate and therefore know that they should opt for educational degrees that lead to jobs that figure on the Skilled Occupations List – which informs hopeful migrants about the professions Australia wants. Writing and editing never has and probably never will figure on that list. So even before I came here, I knew that I was not wanted here.
A feeling that was compounded when I realised that I was the only Indian/South Asian student in class, part of only a handful of international students.
But that’s secondary: I came to study, in this UNESCO City of Literature that would be the beginning of my life with words. And I found the literary community in Melbourne very accepting and nurturing even. But I still stop to think a lot when I write a character: should I write a ‘Simran’ or a ‘Sharon’? Should I write about the aromatic smell of the biryani from the café near Flagstaff, or should it reference the blistering steam from the coffeemakers in Kinfolk Café on Bourke Street?
This is a gesture towards the hierarchy of culture; more importantly the popularity and acceptance of some cultures over others. Why do I think about race and culture so much? Why can’t I just be free of these considerations? I wonder to myself. Why is this so hard? My take is: because it’s not common. It’s not normative, or edgy enough to be ‘cool’. My culture, inclinations, language, appearance, dress and food confound my sensibility of being a writer – a writer who has been trained to be one through a western pedagogical system. How do I single-handedly then make these worlds embrace and co-exist within my writing, in harmony?
Race and ethno-religious differences are considerations only for writers of colour.
During the two-day Literary Commons festival, I also had the honour of having a conversation with Indigenous Australian poet Lionel Fogarty. We were on a balcony at The Library at the Docks overlooking the Melbourne Star.
“What would you like to see changed, Lionel, in the way Indigenous literature is today?” I asked him.
“Well, there are thousands of Indigenous writers in Australia. But nobody knows that. I want that to change.”
“How can that happen, Lionel?”
“Why don’t they teach Aboriginal literature in our languages? Why isn’t there an Aboriginal university? It’ll create more jobs and keep people in communities if they can open one in the bush, am I right?”
Lionel had put it so simply, so obviously. But the systemic nature of oppression that deflates Indigenous progress in Australia is well known.
It reminded me of an anecdote Lionel had shared with everyone at the festival. As a young boy at school he was expected to chant hymns and read poetry in English, a task he did not enjoy much.
“English is not poetry to us, taking the fishing trap to our hunting hole is poetry to us,” was a thought Lionel often had as a schoolboy when he wished there was more of him and his culture in the works he was reading at school.
“Shakespeare did not give us poetry, we already had it before the White man came.”
Certainly there is value in reading different kinds of literatures at school and university, especially those that are reflective of the world we inhabit.
Lionel’s works have been read in Indian universities for over two decades. Indian students who go to university and study literature are exposed to works from not only Indigenous Australian writers, but African-American writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, Nigerian writers like Chinua Achebe, to name a few. This exposure fuels and fertilizes the imagination when it comes to constructing varied characters or situations when writing fiction. And similar is the role of writers’ festivals and publishing houses. A diverse set of authors getting published or talking about their works will nurture a diverse readership, and hopefully influence and shape future writers too. Writers beget readers. Readers beget writers.
India is colourful, teeming with people, there’s chaos everywhere; Roads are packed and horns honk endlessly. Hawkers hawk and gawk; slums, scents and colours create a turmoil for the senses. Holi is an amazing festival of colours and Diwali and its lights are a dazzling spectacle. Henna on the hands of the bride in the wedding with a thousand people where the aroma of the curries tugs at taste buds. Elephants, monkeys and cows are a daily sight; beggars and stray dogs sit at street corners while the standup comedian rides his TVS Scooty to the gig two hours before opening to check for ….
Wait … what?
A standup comedian? I thought we were describing India. Where did the stand-up comedian come from? Do they have them there?
This aside is not to mock those who write India in their own way. It is to indicate that there are more ways, which probably have not been explored. For me as a writer, a form of equality (real diversity) will be perhaps when a white writer at times thinks about race before they write; contemplates what their cultural heritage brings to the page and then writes. No, this does not mean an acknowledgement of white privilege with feeling a sense of shame. But instead just an acknowledgement of how (and if) that shapes what they write, think or speak about. It means to give credit to the structures that systemically benefit and side with one group of people over others.
But it could also mean not only choosing courses and subjects like Black literature, Indigenous Australian poetry, women’s writing in pre-Independence India etc, while at university but also writing characters and events inspired by them in a conscious, accepting and informed manner. Or when you choose to write about India, for example, a single piece on a Dharavi slum in Mumbai is not the only Indian piece in your arsenal of articles. And when you do chose to publish , you’re careful that ‘Majoj’ is probably not an Indian name, and that Gandhi is not spelled ‘Ghandi’. Or you make sure that your think piece on Dharavi does not incorrectly state that in India, “Muslims here cannot marry a Hindi” because you know that Hindi is a language, and not a group of people who observe the Hindu faith.
My intent is not to emphasise these mistakes. These are symptoms of the problem of Euro-centricity; a White canon; an Anglo-Celtic writing and critiquing tradition; and the primacy awarded to ways of seeing and experiencing the world as an Anglo-Celtic person.
The notion of ‘diversity’ in its current iteration is limited, limiting and not broad enough. Eurovision still exists, in one way or another.
I became a writer of colour only when I came to Australia. It’s an identity that sits not quite so smoothly on me because I have assumed it. A question to ask is, was that a conscious choice? Why was it the only obvious option?